image: Bill Gordon
Bill Gordon, right, gives one of the hundreds of notebooks to Emeni school principal Simin Rahimi, who distributed them to waiting children last month in Kabul.
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msnbc.com

When America went to war, retired Delaware judge Bill Gordon went to work. While most 78-year-olds might be tempted to put up their feet after a lengthy career that included military service in the Pacific during World War II, running his state’s first family court system and many hours of volunteer work helping drug addicts, Gordon was moved by the plight of children in Afghanistan, especially girls who had been banned from going to school by the Taliban regime.

A year later, Gordon has just returned from Kabul, where the organization he founded, Afghanistan-Delaware Communities Together, is working to rebuild some schools in the Afghan capital, providing supplies and doing its bit to revive an educational system shattered by decades of war and ideological repression.

“What the Taliban had done was unforgivable,” Gordon said, referring to the regime’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that forbade girls from going to school, women from working and heavily censored what children could learn.

Gordon was among the hundreds of American individuals and groups moved by the images from Afghanistan that swamped the world’s television screens after the Sept. 11 attacks were blamed on Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terrorist network.

Bin Laden was sheltered by Afghanistan’s leaders, which immediately put the Central Asian nation in the gunsights of the United States. “I did feel very strongly that something had to be done for the people who were undoubtedly going to suffer again,” Gordon said.

The judge turned to help from Wilmington’s close-knit network of volunteer groups, including the 4H club, the Boys & Girls Club, scouting organizations and religious and educational groups.

Through them, he worked on a plan to make a practical difference on the ground in Afghanistan.

IN A SHAMBLES

Their challenge was formidable. According to international organizations, Afghanistan’s education system was in a shambles at the start of 2002, with schools in disrepair, teachers badly trained and supplies scarce.

But public and private efforts have paid off. UNICEF spokesman Edward Carwardine said that enrollment has been a stunning success, with an estimated 3 million Afghan children going back to school, swelled by girls in the classrooms as well as the children of refugee families returning home.

UNICEF distributed stationary for 2.3 million children, 8.2 million textbooks courtesy of the University of Nebraska and 6,000 tents to serve as

temporary classrooms.

But because of the unexpectedly large enrollment, UNICEF is seeking an additional $10 million to provide adequate supplies through the end of the year.

Afghanistan hasn’t begun to address the huge task of rebuilding its schools. UNICEF estimates that about 50 percent of the nation’s 4,000 schools need to be rebuilt or extensively repaired.

For educators, teaching is a matter of basics. According to the United Nations, more than 5 million girls and 4.3 million boys under the age of 15 are illiterate. Carwardine said that 40 percent of all children began this year in first grade.

BOOSTING LITERACY

For Bill Gordon and his colleagues, the task was to begin small. After initially looking at helping Afghans stuck in refugee camps, they turned to focusing on a handful of schools where they could make a difference.

“The Ministry of Education pointed us toward a section (of Kabul) that was the line of battle of several wars,” said Nazir Nisar, an Afghan-American who accompanied Gordon to Afghanistan.

The district, known as Nihai 7, contained several schools that had been battered by decades of war.

At one school, 2,900 students attend classes in three shifts during the day. “The children sit on a mud floor, there are no windows and the roof is ready to collapse,” said Nisar, who was

back in Afghanistan for the first time in 17 years.

The building has no bathrooms and the children must call on neighbors if they want drinking water, he said.

On their recent visit, Gordon and Nisar supplied notebooks, pencils and pens for hundreds of the children — and promised to raised money for renovation work.

They are poised to register their group as an official non-governmental organization with the Afghan government and have hired three people in Afghanistan to coordinate with the schools.

“What is most needed is a functional place so they can study,” Nisar said.

In the future, Gordon envisions the schools becoming community centers that can not only educate children but help with adult training, house medical facilities and computer labs.

In the meantime, Gordon is looking forward to returning to Kabul.

“I just think that somehow or other these people are doing more than surviving,” he said, recalling a scene in one school where girls were excitedly playing volleyball over a torn net in the playground. “They are reliving an opportunity that had been deprived them during the Taliban.”

(Sean Federico-O’Murchu is a international news producer/editor at MSNBC.com )

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